The world is moving on the Paris Accord — but not fast enough

World Bank
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at the Climate Summit 2016 in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Five months after reaching the Paris Agreement on stemming climate change, many individuals from international agencies, government, business and cities who forged that historic deal met in Washington Thursday to assess what's been done so far. 

Their conclusion? Extraordinary numbers of commitments have been made, yet they are not rolling out at nearly the pace of action needed to keep global warming in check.

"We have no time to waste. Delay is not an option. We have to wake up once again from the fog of success — political successes must lead quickly to action and implementation," said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, speaking at the Climate Action 2016 gathering.

The event was hosted by leaders from the United Nations, the World Bank and numerous NGOs including the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the We Mean Business coalition, the Compact of Mayors and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Successes on the front end

As of May, 155 companies had agreed to cut emissions in line with the science-based targets used in the Paris Accord — reductions aimed to keep global temperature from rising no more than 2 degrees Celsius, on average, above preindustrial levels. Nearly a third, or 41 of these companies committed to this rigorous measurement just since the Paris meeting, including Owens Corning, SunPower, Ben & Jerry’s and Toyota Motor Corp.

Roughly 1,000 companies publicly have called for carbon pricing as a way to drive investment in low carbon energy and a similar number already use carbon pricing for internal accounting, according to the We Mean Business Coalition.

On Earth Day last month, representatives from 175 nations signed the Accord, which makes it the largest international agreement in history.

Mayors from about 500 cities, from all over the globe, have joined the Compact of Mayors initiative to reduce cities greenhouse gas emissions by promoting electric vehicles and shared mobility.

More than half of all new investment in energy projects has gone to renewable power since the start of 2015, marking the first time investment in renewables has beat out that in coal and gas-fired electricity.

And investment in low carbon technologies has soared, even as investors eschew fossil fuel investments.

Still, people including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the World Bank’s Kim as well as business leaders, city mayors, senators and scientists said time is of the essence as the effects of climate change appear in floods, droughts, fires and disease patterns around the world. The Paris commitments add up to slowly decarbonizing the world's economies when rapid decarbonization is needed, they said.

"We are not having courageous enough conversations," said Nigel Topping, chief executive of We Mean Business.

 

"Achieving the goals we set at Paris is an extremely close call," said Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute. The last time that average global temperatures reached what they would be if they rise more than 2 degrees Celsius was during the Eemian interglacial period, he said. "And please know that in that previous interglacial period, sea level was 6 meters higher than it is today."

Sachs said none of the major countries in the developed world is sufficiently planning for a decarbonized economy.

Secretary General Ban called unequivocally for a price on carbon — and said leadership to implement carbon pricing and the Paris commitments efficiently are what future generations need from us. 

Who's going to lead?

Against a backdrop of the nation's capital rapt by a dramatic and unusual presidential campaign season in which the presumptive Republican nominee is a climate denier, the meeting's talk of urgency for policy and action seemed quixotic. Although President Barack Obama has called for a $10 tax on carbon, the U.S. Congress is about as far away as it could be from legislating policy that puts any kind of a price on carbon.

Many cities, on the other hand, get it — according to a slew of mayors in attendance at the Climate Action Summit.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., and Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta said they are promoting electric transportation in their cities, planting trees and investing in solar when possible.

"In most cities there is a 20 to 30 percent opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint," said Reed. He and other mayors announced a new effort, the Coalition for Urban Transitions of 80 cities that vow to help each other in adopting clean transportation and other sustainable moves and to share best practices. They also have studied key barriers to cities doing more to decarbonize.

Because cities hold a majority of the world's population and account for a majority of most countries GDPs as well as their greenhouse gas emissions, cities are necessarily part of the transition team.

Unsurprisingly, lack of financing was found to be the key barrier to cities doing more.

Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, media titan, U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change and founding partner of the Compact of Mayors, predicted that cities and businesses will lead the way to the decarbonized world and decarbonized economies. That's because they know how to get things done, and are held accountable for getting things done every day, he said. Geographically cities account for the vast majority of greenhouse gases. 

"Cities are where the people are, the problems are and the solutions are," he said, and also where "the intellectual capital, political capital and money" are needed to solve those problems can be found. He dismissed the federal government, especially legislators, as ineffective for lacking practical or executive responsibilities.

But erstwhile presidential candidate and former Governor of Maryland Martin O'Malley urged against writing off the federal government, as younger voters will hold lawmakers accountable to action.

"What I learned in my (presidential campaign) offering, is when you talk to people under 30, you very rarely find climate change deniers," he said. "I believe it is through that issue that young people of both parties hear whether a candidate is dedicated to the common good," and that young voters from both parties will demand their elected officials to protect the planet for their generation and those yet to come.